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Research in the field: A passion for learning outside the classroom

WCSU Professor of Biology Dr. Thomas Philbrick understands very well why the students who join him on research field trips gain fresh perspective and passion for scientific work  – because he has walked that path himself.

“When I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, two faculty members there changed my life,” Philbrick recalled. “They introduced me to the excitement of biology and science. It was their interaction with me and their trust in me – a small-town boy with curiosity but little if any academic discipline – that changed my perspective on life and served as the catalyst for me to pursue a career in science.

“I do my best to offer similar opportunities for students who want this here at Western,” he said. “I strongly feel that the most important learning opportunities that faculty members provide for students are those that happen outside formal coursework. Biology is a subject best learned outside the classroom.”

In fulfillment of that mission, Philbrick has taken Western students along as research assistants in his field work to study and collect specimens of botanical species found in river environments in several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Venezuela. “I thoroughly enjoy providing research experiences for students who show curiosity, passion and drive,” he said. “It is a life-changing experience to interact during our trips with colleagues from these countries.”

Tom Edson, a former WCSU biology student who accompanied Philbrick on trips to Costa Rica and Venezuela, became involved in his professor’s research study of the tropical plant family Podostemaceae, gaining an understanding of the species through extensive lab work at WCSU in preparation for field work abroad. His analysis of data collected from the Costa Rica trip provided the foundation for his senior research project, which he presented at an international conference of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. Edson also collaborated with Philbrick and a Brazilian colleague as coauthor of a scientific paper based on their research.

“For me, learning hands-on and being taught through direct demonstration in the field are what biology and the sciences in general are all about,” said Edson. “Tom showed an enthusiasm not only for biology, but for connecting with students and sharing what he knew. Above all else, what I have taken away from working with him is the importance of being part of the cycle that passes along the knowledge and zeal for what we do. It opened my eyes to greater possibilities than I had previously envisioned for myself, and has helped me to obtain employment as a biologist.

“My experiences in field work and research have instilled a confidence and feeling of accomplishment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and an eagerness to interact and collaborate with people from different cultures,” he added. “I can only hope that these opportunities will continue to grow and be provided to as many Western students as possible.”          

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Theodora Pinou also has invited several of her students to join her as assistants in research on turtle species found on the Pacific coastline of Mexico. Pinou observed that in selecting students to participate in her research work in the field, she seeks out individuals who approach the task with a willingness and motivation to learn and who are reliable, trustworthy and technically rigorous in their scientific work. Often the students best suited to be research assistants may not achieve the highest classroom grades, but are open to accepting their initial assumptions may be wrong and seizing the opportunity to learn from the field experience, she said.

“The student shadows and works with the faculty member on a project that has serious personal meaning to that professor; the data you collect in the field must answer to high professional standards,” Pinou said. “Research experience like this is invaluable because the student has a unique opportunity to watch you think, and work together with you to get the job accomplished. That kind of learning experience is very different from taking a course with that faculty member.”

Pinou observed that support from private donors can make the difference in enabling faculty members to hire students as research assistants, especially in field work that requires travel and extended stays abroad. She noted that donor support for student assistants can be leveraged by faculty members to obtain research grant funding for their field work. The outcome holds benefits for both instruction and research at Western, she added: “The donor not only is promoting the student’s development and creation of knowledge, but also is supporting the scholarly work of the faculty member.”

Above photo: Stephanie Tucci '08 (right) on a research project in Tocantins, Brazil.

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